Whosit and Why


   I often ask myself why someone would willingly become a river guide. I did it, but don’t under- stand when anyone else does. There’s not much money in it. The days are long, and lengthen considerably as the season unravels. Physical toil is extreme, whether it appears so or not. Turnarounds are terrible.

   Turnaround: where you unload boats until you drop and then ride in a truck ‘til you drop and then offload everything at a warehouse and onload lots of new things really fast and get back in the truck and drive to Lees Ferry and unload everything in preparation for reloading it, again, in the same boat it just came out of. Bad turnarounds—any insignificant snafu will throw a huge wrench into the works—go on and on (and on) without any foreseeable end, with one frustration after another, and only that, ever and always.

   Why would somebody intentionally go through that and, if they did, why would they do it again?

   On occasion I eat breakfast with a boatman I know, Whosit, an odd sort wrapped in 20th Century mysticism sprinkled over with ‘canyon stuff.’ This man’s turnarounds are awful, the very worst. On his day off he goes everywhere his boat goes—and gets a slim $35 to do it; otherwise he leads it around, by a tiller, and gets, before taxes, about $100 a day so, I guess, it all equals out somehow. The point is he can’t escape the thing. Day and night, on river or not, his boat is staring him in the face like a huge white elephant.

   His is a horrible tough schedule to maintain across a 6-month season. It is very rough on equipment, emotions and bodies; there’s never time to fix anything properly, including personal affairs. Still, he puts himself through it time after time after time. Why?

   Figure this guy’s first motor trip, the one where he decided, for some completely inexplicable reason, that he wanted to become a boatman. The rest is history, mostly. Read it and weep.

   Whosit didn’t know anything about the river except what he heard when cruisin’ highways hauling boats and listening to river stories. A couple of years of that. It all sounded pretty good to him. The company was short on crew. He was available, and made a point of saying so.

   He left Bright Angel Beach on Benny’s boat after driving it to Lees Ferry, rigging it, getting it into the water, driving back to Flagstaff, packing, and driving to the South Rim. There he hiked 7 miles down the Kaibab Trail [he called it the ka-BOB back then; that is how much he knew his first time out] with 20 people he would not otherwise have laid eyes on [but was responsible for] to a boat and river he had seldom seen. Off they went. Benny had trouble in Crystal, hit a wall or lost his engine or went swimming or something. Whosit took the tiller, trashed a prop, and got wide-eyed real fast. Benny got back in. Off they went again.

   At Deer Creek, Spoogedawg, my only crew, got to where he couldn’t do anything except lie in the shade, hold his gut, and moan. Appendicitis. I called Huey. Spoogedawg flew away prone, laced to a backboard, heavily sedated. Benny lent me Whosit, who, that first day, staggered around my boat mumbling, “oh...God...oh, GOD!” This curious behavior was juxtaposed against childlike ejaculations of joy and bizarre outbursts of hysterical laughter. Too weird! A seriously schizo personality springs immediately to mind, right?

   Right! He burned his hands in the kitchen, poured cooking oil all over himself by mistake, did not have a change of clothes, was cowed and shaken by simple knotcraft, fell in the river and, worse, completely befuddled passengers who, like caged rats, played musical chairs in a vain attempt to escape his every move.

   When I asked him to make up a cobbler mix in an aluminum bowl and put it in the Dutch oven he did just that, and had a hurt, puzzled look on his face when I howled at the humor of it. That was at mile 220, where he also orchestrated his own last-night awards ceremony complete with door prizes—a stunning success. The next morning he got off at Diamond Creek and traveled to Flagstaff where he stepped into a truck, fired up, coupled a trailer and drove out to Pearce Ferry to meet the boat he had just left, and beat it to the take out! Incredible!! We ate dinner at the Crow’s Nest in Meadview that night, grease mostly. I recall he bought, revealing my memory is not what it should be in these matters. We returned to Flagstaff very early the next morning after mistaking moonlight through the clouds for dawn. Whew...

   And so, as we sit at a cafe table sipping our coffee many good years later, enjoying the fresh day’s clouds and sunlit room and the simple notion that someone else is cooking, I wonder aloud what makes him do it, and why. Being the sort he is the boatman crinkles his nose, scratches it, then eyes his plate. He needs a shave, which is excusable. It is Saturday, his day off, and his boat is outside awaiting him. Eggs on the fork, ketchup to the eggs, eggs in the mouth. He chews. “Uh...I think it was that week-long turnaround I did—The Happy Nightmare [erupts in maniacal laughter]. After that I could do anything! But its not why I do it. That’s a different matter entirely. I mean, how could anyone not do this?”

Shane Murphy